“Stand and Unfold Yourself”: Actors’ Shakespeare Project brings learning to life (and vice versa)

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For many students, William Shakespeare is just another “dead white guy” whom they have to get through in order to graduate and be considered “smart.” For those who are fortunate enough to engage his texts with support from the talented educational team of Actors’ Shakespeare Project (www.actorsshakespeareproject.org), however, the words of the Bard can become essential descriptions of and connections to their everyday lives.

While Boston is blessed with many amazing and award-winning performance groups, most of them perform in home venues, which requires audiences to come to them.  Some offer outreach programs, but these often run into challenges concerning how to connect the theatre’s community and the audience’s. Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) strives to see the entire city as an artistic playground where Shakespeare resonates across neighborhoods and audiences.  

“We’re not interested in going in and saying, ‘Look what we as experts have to share with you,’” explains ASP’s Director of Education Programs Mara Sidmore. “We want to engage in a mutual learning process to discover what we all can learn from working on Shakespeare together. We want [people] to own their own stories and find themselves in Shakespeare’s universal, time-tried stories.”

As it has no “home” theatre, the intentionally itinerant ASP has to go into the community to perform, partnering with students and others in the community in an effort to engage them with the text and with each other in more meaningful ways.

“Outreach implies we are going into a community and offering services,” Sidmore suggests. “Community work involves forming relationships [and] working together to learn from one another.”

Though Shakespeare is often a “given” in the curricula, Sidmore says that ASP tries to help the words come alive and become more a part of life for the students than they might be if just assigned as any other reading.

“There is a philosophical belief that, if [students] become fluent in Shakespeare as a piece of knowledge,” she suggests, “it helps serve them as lifelong learners because the stories, text, and characters are referenced in so many ways and so many places.”

Instead of just explaining those common references, ASP begins conversations with these texts and encourages participants to see where their own stories intersect and how these lines are still relevant today.

“We start from there,” Sidmore explains, “and see what stories we have as humans...that resonate with the text.”

Instead of starting with the question of, “Why do we have to read this?” ASP asks, “Why does it matter to students today and what can they gain from being exposed to and exploring Shakespeare.... And what can we as artists learn from the students?”

Another key difference between ASP andmany other performance groups is that many members have taught or currently teach. Their own work with youth of all ages helps inform ASP education programs and allows them to continually extend the learning in the ASP community through classes, workshops, and other partnerships in the schools and throughout the community.  

“We learn as much from students and school communities as they do from us,” notes Sidmore, who worked in many middle and high schools before garnering her Masters of Fine Arts in acting. “The teaching work informs us as artists and humans.  The students surprise us with what they understand about Shakespeare, which then informs our own learning about Shakespeare.  We are not the experts here; we are participants in a mutual learning process.”

As the process is shared, Sidmore suggests that it is also bi-directional. “We see that part of our role as artists is not just to present our work but to be in dialogue through a learning process with other people,” she says.

As they venture forth into various communities, ASP is especially adept at reaching and engaging people who may not be considered by other companies or who may simply not have access to professional theater. “We are interested in the universality of Shakespeare’s language and text,” Sidmore says, “and what happens when people across lots of different backgrounds investigate that together.”

Having originally started as a partnership with the Department of Youth Services to engage students who were involved in the criminal justice system, ASP’s education programs have expanded across the Commonwealth and continue to reach into new and ever-more-diverse communities each year. When asked how ASP has developed such a strong relationship with Boston schools, Sidmore explains that the BPS Arts Expansion Initiative has played an extremely significant role.

“The City has been working hard to expand arts education in schools across the district,” Sidmore explains, “and arts organization partners are key to their initiative.”  

According to Sidmore, ASP works closely with the BPS Arts Office to “align with their priorities, which includes increasing the numbers of students receiving regular, high quality arts instruction throughout the school day.  We work together to identify which BPS schools would be a good mutual match each year, and where there might be opportunity for growing theater as a discipline.”  Once engaged in these specific schools each year, many students and teachers recommend ASP programs to colleagues. “We often form a relationship with one passionate teacher who brings us in and introduces us to others and it grows from there,” she explains. “It is about relationship-building.” 

ASP also receives funding and support from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Shakespeare in American Communities program. “The focus of that is to see that young people are exposed to professional high-quality Shakespeare theatre,” Sidmore explains. “They want students who might not otherwise have the option of going to the theater to be exposed and engaged and also to have a hands-on learning component built in.”

Thanks to support from the BPS Arts Expansion, ASP is able to offer some of its programs at a low cost or free, which is significant when schools grapple with their individual budgets.  Many schools that may not be able to afford other programs are able to bring ASP in and offer their integrative approach to their students and faculty. Another option that ASP makes available is its annual summer Teacher Institute, which is offered in partnership with Salem State University.  ASP also works with a cohort of English Language Arts and Fine Arts teachers throughout the school year, offering professional development for teaching Shakespeare. 

“It allows teachers to come learn an immersive, a kinesthetic, and an artistically-based approach,” Sidmore observes. “It also helps us engage and build relationships with teachers, many of whom call on us for further support or invite us to come to their schools.  We have been told that our Institute is both personally transformative and rigorous in its demand for real application back to the classroom. We’re playing- unpacking the text- approaching it not as literature, but as living, breathing, art. It’s refreshing for all of us!” 

As they are a “Project,” Sidmore explains that performance is just one part of what ASP does and that, like Shakespeare’s words, their work with his plays is always changing according to the audience. “We are committed to not just having a professional season,” Sidmore says, “but seeing our plays as the centerpiece of a larger project.”

For example, Sidmore suggests, when working with Julius Caesar, ASP may make a special effort to engage people who have dealt with political unrest, such as veteran communities. Similarly, for King Lear, they may reach out to elder communities to discuss the issues related to aging in Western culture. “We…learn from them and have their experiences educate our process,” Sidmore says. “We explore beyond the plays.”

When working with students, ASP often raises the many complicated issues with which younger people grapple  every day. Among these are the questions of gender, love, loyalty and rivalry that Shakespeare was so adept at capturing and that still ring true 400 years later.

“We let the students use whatever skills they have,” Sidmore explains, noting that what are often treated as readings (which was not Shakespeare’s intention) often become multi-media affairs. “If there is a student who is a spoken word artist, we want him or her to illuminate the text through original spoken word pieces that connect to our selected scenes.  If we have hip-hop artists or improvisational dance artists, we want them to use those talents and incorporate them into the show. Shakespeare needs to be now!”

One of the most profound examples of student engagement is at Boston Day and Evening Academy, where ASP maintains a presence throughout the year.

“In December, BDEA has what they call Project Month,” Sidmore explains. “We are one of the Projects and work in tandem with some of the ELA staff.  It is a special class where students spend essentially six hours every day for four weeks with their teachers and ASP teaching artists, and, at the end, there is a culminating “sharing” performance that we affectionately call a “mash-up.”  It’s a showcase of what they learned in whatever way is appropriate for them, and while it always includes Shakespeare’s text, it could also include video or originally devised movement or spoken word pieces or elements of a set; it’s up to the ensemble to help shape the outcome.” 

After helping the students “get the play on its feet,” the actors and educators from ASP encourage them to “ask and answer why they care and why the language resonates with them.” Last December, ASP worked through The Taming of the Shrew.

“We told the whole story and had students playing all the roles,” she recalls, “but we also had all of their voices included in exploration of gender dynamics and relationships between themselves and their parents and issues of love and courtship and dating, so the text was illuminated more fully in the context of the students’ voices.” By taking the texts out of a standard desk-based classroom and off of a simple reading list, ASP strives to help students and others get more deeply engaged with the plays.

“Because we are actors,” Sidmore suggests, “we believe that young people need to work in ways that connect their words and actions in a powerful way.” Especially for kinesthetic learners, this added dimension of performance and physical engagement opens doors and opportunities that simple readings cannot.  It also allows them to speak their voices; voices which have often been silenced or are currently required to be silent, and this can be revolutionary for teenagers who desperately need to be seen and heard. 

“The advantage is that we get to play,” Sidmore observes, “and we hope that, by activating the voices, bodies and imaginations of the students through Shakespeare’s texts, that there is then a feeling of opening.”

When asked for one line that epitomizes ASP’s philosophy, Sidmore turns to Hamlet and the line in which the troubled prince comes upon his friends who are guarding the castle that should by rights be his yet which has been usurped by a villainous uncle.

 “‘Stand and unfold yourself,’ the guard says to Hamlet,” Sidmore quotes. When asked what it means and why it is so relevant (as ASP suggests all of Shakespeare’s words are), Sidmore replies, “We can open and change who we are and we see that students can do that through their performance and that, in the process, they gain confidence in their own stories and empathy for other people’s stories. The opportunity to take a positive risk and receive accolades for that risk is powerful for the students with whom we work.”